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Saving Higher Education

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While browsing through the Dartmouth College Bookstore in New Hampshire recently I came across a book with a bold title: Saving Higher Education. Anyone who knows higher education knows it is an industry that is experiencing more change today than it has at any time since Harvard was established as the United States' first college in 1636.

New delivery systems -- from digital textbooks to MOOCs -- are dramatically altering and impacting the traditional classroom model of learning. Information once communicated only by a professor is now on every student's computer. Textbooks are no longer static resources -- digital versions can be instantly updated.

Even with these changes in access to education, today approximately 60 percent of working-age adults in the U.S. do not have college degrees. With studies showing that people with college degrees have higher earning potential and shifts in our economy creating increased demand for workers with advanced training, President Barack Obama has challenged colleges and universities to expand their opportunities for access to education so that by 2020, America will have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.

So, clearly, there is a need for institutions of higher learning now more than ever. In order to accommodate not only more students, but also those of diverse economic and social backgrounds, universities must look closely at the value of their degrees and their models for instruction. Universities are investing additional resources to provide quality education, and many institutions across the country have increased their tuition as a result.

But increasing cost does not necessarily equate to increasing value, and it would be a gross understatement to say that a college education is an expense for students and their families. A college education is a significant, life-changing endeavor and therefore a major investment.

Our shifting technology, economy and demographics dictate the fact that we're at a critical turning point in higher education. Leaders at our nation's colleges and universities are therefore concerned about what higher education will look like in the future, as well as what it will cost and how it will function, in the future. Higher education, and traditional classroom learning, will not go away, but they will change. Anticipating and moving along with this change is how we will "save" higher education.

Our perspective at Lipscomb University is shared by hundreds of other institutions. With a modest endowment and virtually no direct government funding, we are unwaveringly committed to delivering on our mission in a way that addresses our students' needs. Lipscomb is confronting the realities of higher education in a straightforward manner by understanding the needs of both students and their future employers, and supporting faculty who are diligently working to adapt and deliver exceptional educational products.

By sharing some of our ideas to make education more accessible, affordable and relevant, we hope to make these solutions less unusual.

1. Consider offering a three-year bachelor's degree. While not perfect, the "accelerated," three-year degree model has the potential to save a residential student about $10,000 in college costs and allow that person to enter the workforce and begin earning an income a year early. We find more and more students and their families are curious about, and ultimately decide to pursue, this option since we instituted the program several years ago.

2. Develop seamless transfer policies with community colleges. Students who plan carefully can fulfill their general education requirements at a community college. Doing so, they save substantial amounts of money on the front end (about $40,000, by our calculations) and can then go on to complete their four-year degree at a lower cost.

3. Establish special financial aid programs for disadvantaged and first-generation students to increase access to higher education. At Lipscomb this is part of a strategy that has resulted in almost $2 million in aid and a minority student population increase of more than 100 percent -- from 382 to 771 in a student body of about 4,200 -- in the last five years, providing a richer cultural mix in the student body.

4. Study the workplace need. Real and valuable connections between the academy and the workplace are incredibly important. We act on this belief by creating new academic programs (50 in the last seven years) that respond to present and near-future employment demand. Doing so, we serve the community by producing qualified graduates to fill new jobs and give students an advantage as they enter the workforce.

5. Institute programs for veterans. Lipscomb is proud to have developed one of the largest "Yellow Ribbon" programs in partnership with the Veterans Administration. This fall, more than 170 veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are enrolled at Lipscomb, where we provide both a personalized private education and a nurturing environment for their healing and transition into civilian life. For qualifying Yellow Ribbon students at Lipscomb who are eligible for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' post 9/11 GI Bill benefits, we consider that payment enough, and there is no further charge for their education.

6. Look at innovative delivery and go beyond campus boundaries. This fall, Lipscomb opened the first of what will be several off-campus education centers in our area. At Spark, as the first location is called, students, business owners and entrepreneurs share the most innovative, flexible and technology-rich education and meeting space facility in our state. With corporate meetings during the day and graduate programs during the evenings, we extend our impact as an institution of higher learning to new audiences.

"Saving higher education" is not an exaggerated claim of what needs to be done. With these best practices in place more broadly, higher education can better navigate choppy economic waters and help students succeed in these uncertain times. Universities must be proactive to stay on top of the waves of changes facing them and work daily to create not only excellent institutions but those that are cost-competitive and relevant to the needs of students today... and tomorrow.